Major opposition parties in India and the United Nations backed an octogenarian Jesuit priest, jailed for alleged charges of sedition and links with Maoist rebels and demanded his immediate release.
The leaders of the Congress, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Communist Party of India, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the Nationalist Congress Party slammed the arrest of 84-year-old activist Father Stan Swamy on Oct. 21. The party leaders also expressed solidarity with the “genuine” work the priest had done among the oppressed tribal people and other marginalized groups.
The sickly priest was arrested at his residence in Ranchi, capital of eastern Jharkhand state, on Oct. 8 night on the grounds of being party to a conspiracy that led to violence at Bhima Koregaon, in western state of Maharashtra, on Jan. 1, 2018, in which one person was killed and several others injured.
The priest denied the allegation and said he had not even visited Bhima Koregaon in his entire life. In a video message before his arrest, he said the National Investigation Agency, the federal agency tasked with combating terror activities, implicated him by manipulating documents in the case for his relentless fight against the exploitation of tribals and other oppressed mainly in Jharkhand.
The priest is among the 16 activists who are now in judicial custody for their opposition to the policies of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party-led federal government and also the erstwhile BJP government in Jharkhand. Civil rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties had arranged the virtual press conference in solidarity with Father Stan and others facing trial for the alleged sedition charges.
Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren in his message accused the federal government of trying to silence the voices of marginalized communities.” In a video message, he said, “under the present government, unity, integrity and democratic structures were under attack.”
He also slammed the federal government for “silencing the voices of those speaking for the Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalized groups.” He also deplored the way the government weakened various constitutional offices to advance its hidden agenda.
The BJP is accused of working to turn India into a Hindu theocratic and dictatorial country.
The arrest of someone like Father Swamy crossed all limits, the chief minister said. “He is someone who has been working in Jharkhand for years, in the remote faraway villages, wandering in the jungles, just so that the Adivasis, Dalits and minority populations here could be reached. This is extremely disappointing. Fr Stan (Swamy) is also suffering from many diseases,” Soren said.
“The way Stan Swamy has been arrested today, it could happen to any of us tomorrow – or it could even escalate further to people being killed,” Soren said.
Shashi Tharoor, a former federal minister and senior Congress leader, said Father Swamy deserves “respect and support,” not a jail term. Tharoor said he was convinced that “no Jesuit will indulge in any violence or entice anyone towards violence. This must stop. I appeal to the government to be fair and at least grant him bail. We stand in solidarity with Fr Stan,” he said.
They also demanded repeal of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), under which the priest and other activists are arrested. Leaders such as Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of CPI-M and K Kanimozhi K leader of DMK urged the public to break their silence over the government’s attacks on the rights of the people.
“Every law that this government passed had taken away the rights of the people. It’s time to break the silence,” Kanimozhi exhorted. Calling for repeal of UAPA, Yechury said, “it is prone to gross misuse.” He also said the federal government was working in such a way that it wants to pave the way for a “fascistic, intolerant and authoritarian Hindutva nation.” The Centre, he alleged, is using central agencies to undermine the Constitution, while shielding the real perpetrators of violence.
On Oct. 20 the United Nations too questioned the arrest of Father Stan as well as the human rights record of India. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement urging the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations.
“More than 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in relation to the protests, with many charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a law which has also been widely criticized for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards”, the statement said.
“Most recently, the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalized groups, was charged and reportedly remains in detention, despite his poor health”, it noted.
Bachelet urged the Indian government to ensure that “no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society.”
India, however, reacted to the UN strongly saying violations of the law cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights and a more informed view of the matter was expected of the UN body.